By Lucas Grindley
Originally published on Advocate.com December 21 2012 1:50 PM ET
History's first openly gay ambassador finally got an apology today from one of the Republicans who had called him too "aggressively gay" to serve.
LGBT rights groups were worried that the next Defense Secretary could be former Republican senator Chuck Hagel, who has now apologized for comments he made in 1997 about James Hormel, a gay nominee for an ambassadorship to Luxembourg. Hagel said today his comments were "insensitive" and unrepresentative of his views.
When Hormel, President Clinton's historic pick, went before the Senate for confirmation, Hagel joined a growing chorus of Republican criticism.
“Ambassadorial posts are sensitive,” Hagel said in a 1998 interview raised now by activists. “They are representing America. They are representing our lifestyle, our values, our standards. And I think it is an inhibiting factor to be gay — openly, aggressively gay, like Mr. Hormel — to do an effective job.”
The comments were a different tone than he'd taken months before the controversy erupted, when Hagel sat on the sidelines as Hormel sailed through the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee on which he sat. It was a starkly different approach from his virulently antigay counterparts.
In Hormel's memoir, Fit to Serve, he recalls the sense of relief after the committee approved him on a 16-2 vote, with only Republican Chairman Jesse Helms and then-Sen. John Ashcroft of Missouri voting against. For his part, Hagel in the November 4 meeting in 1997 didn't request in the voice vote to join Helms and Ashcroft.
Hormel recalls that the only Republican to ask him a question during his hearing had been Gordon Smith of Oregon, and it was a "softball" that didn't raise any red flags.
But notoriously antigay Sens. James Inhofe of Oklahoma and Tim Hutchinson of Arkansas quickly placed holds on the nomination, stalling it indefinitely. Inhofe's antigay record continues to this day, and Hutchinson was a graduate of Bob Jones University.
Then began an assault on Hormel's credentials. Hormel recalls being grilled during a private meeting by Hutchinson about his partner's work with the Digital Queers, a nonprofit tech group, and about whether he would disavow the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence. Footage had surfaced of Hormel laughing during a gay pride parade as the "sisters" marched by wearing their nun outfits. Hutchinson used it to go on a public campaign that cast Hormel as an anti-Catholic being sent to a predominately Catholic country. He had already been attacked by the religious right as a potential pedophile sympathizer.
Then Hagel gave his "insensitive" answer when asked how he would vote if the holds were lifted and Hormel went up for a confirmation vote.
“My comments 14 years ago in 1998 were insensitive," Hagel said today. "They do not reflect my views or the totality of my public record, and I apologize to Ambassador Hormel and any LGBT Americans who may question my commitment to their civil rights. I am fully supportive of ‘open service’ and committed to LGBT military families.”
Hormel went on to become ambassador only because Clinton pushed him through with a recess appointment.
The Human Rights Campaign, which had been sharply critical of Hagel's possible nomination at Defense, said in a statement that it "appreciated" his "change of heart."
"Senator Hagel's apology and his statement of support for LGBT equality is appreciated and shows just how far as a country we have come when a conservative former Senator from Nebraska can have a change of heart on LGBT issues," said HRC President Chad Griffin. "Our community continues to add allies to our ranks and we're proud that Senator Hagel is one of them."
The Defense Department only recently implemented repeal of the "don't ask, don't tell" policy, and activists were concerned that its leader be on their side when facing criticism from Republicans in Congress, who have objected to military chaplains marrying same-sex couples on bases. Also, equal benefits for soldiers in same-sex relationships are still not available because of the Defense of Marriage Act.
"The next Defense Secretary should get off to a fast start and ensure LGBT military families have access to every possible benefit under the law," Griffin said. "Every day these families continue to face unfair treatment and the secretary can take meaningful action to remedy this discrimination."